Arts Preview Theatre

Esplanade’s Flipside 2023: An Interview with Nick Lehane, creator of ‘Chimpanzee’

Award-winning puppeteer and theatremaker Nick Lehane is a sensitive man, who feels for the world and its inhabitants, and wants you to think about them too. In his critically-acclaimed puppet play Chimpanzee, Nick invites audiences to consider the plight of a primate whose DNA is surprisingly close to ours, yet is put through the wringer and subject to cruelties such as being locked in a cage and subject to scientific experiments.

“One of the first books I read on the subject was primatologist Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees, which dealt with the treatment of chimpanzees in laboratories. That created a springboard from which I would create the show,” says Nick. “I’m interested in our lives as people and all living beings, and I believe there’s good reason to believe non-humans and animals also possess intelligent life and subjectivity and desires and can form relationships. In fact, I think most people know this, like how we can own pets like dogs and cats. One then imagines that an animal like a chimpanzee that has even more in common with us genetically would be even closer to us.”

“Yet, at the same time the dominant culture treats most animals as a means to an end rather than an ends in and of themselves, as something to snack on or to test,” he continues. “And reading about all these stories, what was striking was that these chimpanzees had experienced both extremes of inclusion and exclusion, where they had initially been brought into human homes and made part of a human family, and suddenly thrust into these biomedical facilities, and treated like non-living beings. It was that contrast and massive distance between one experience from another that was emblematic of how we still had so much to think about in our relationship with non-human animals, and I wanted to address that.”

With a single puppet operated by three puppeteers, Chimpanzee is a non-verbal play about an ape that reminisces about the comfort, curiosity and freedom she had growing up in a human family, a contrast to her bleak present-day reality in a biomedical facility. Shifts in time and place are conveyed through exquisite, lifelike bunraku style puppetry and haunting sound and lighting design.

Chimpanzee originally started out as a short 20 minute piece, before we decided to develop it further, with the support of the Jim Henson Company and Cheryl Henson. It’s not bunraku puppetry exactly, but inspired by it, with three people puppeteering the chimpanzee on a table,” says Nick. “We were also curious how much was possible with just one puppet and a soundscape, and I think I saw some common ground between the world an audience can fill and imagine with sound and foley coupled with movements and puppetry.”

“We developed the puppet at St Anne’s Warehouse Puppet Lab, and a large part of why we decided to simply leave it as the shape of a chimpanzee rather than adding in too many details is because we deliberately wanted it to be a blank slate,” he adds. “That allows audiences to imagine the chimpanzee within their mind’s eye, and fill in the details according to their own personal interpretation. Too many details prevent an audience from imagining the chimpanzee for themselves, plus, something about a hairy puppet for this show didn’t feel right.”

Beyond how it looks, in terms of the chimpanzee’s movements, Nick and his team opted for a careful balance of going as lifelike as possible without having to resort to precise anatomical mimicry in the puppet. “The Handspring Puppet Company talked about the hose puppets in War Horse, and how a real horse’s ribs swing out when they breathe. But they couldn’t replicate that, and so hold up raised bags instead,” says Nick. “Our chimpanzee isn’t anatomically identical, like how it has no wrists, but we do try to capture the essence of chimpanzee movements, which we learn by watching tons of videos on YouTube, of chimpanzees both in captivity and the wild. We actually got a chance to meet real chimpanzees as well, and went to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Montreal. There was a cage outside the facility that was kept away from the chimpanzee’s sight, but that humans could look at and understand the kind of spaces they were kept in when in facilities.”

“I always harken back to this quote by Adrian Kohler, of the Handspring Puppet Company, where he said that “an actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet struggles to live”. And that makes me think about how breathing for us is a passive, subconscious act, but to give life to a puppet is a choice, and a constant effort,” he continues. “A lot of the movement stems from puppetry principles of breath, weight and gaze, and there’s this idea of choreographed breath in the show. I think one of the most fascinating things is how, if we do our job right, the puppet can convey life and emotion, and the audience breathes along with the puppet.”

In many ways, it does seem that Nick was always destined for the life of a puppeteer, with a father who used to direct children’s television, and a grandfather who gave him ventriloquist dolls as a child. “It’s a lot like constellations, where we draw lines between the stars and form a personal narrative. Besides my childhood experiences, after I studied movement and mask training as an actor, it all clicked that I should do puppetry,” says Nick. “I ended up going to the Rhodopi International Theater Collective in Bulgaria, where some artists in residence were performing a non-verbal work comprising different puppetry styles that followed dream logic. And that really solidified my want to perform such visual poetry, that draws people in and provide them an experience they cannot fully describe, but must be felt. Puppetry isn’t the most common profession today, but I do think that despite its niche, it’s still relevant even today, where there are plenty of high profile shows employing puppetry, from Life of Pi to War Horse, or The Lion King, And I think it’s thriving.”

Nick isn’t wrong, and himself has the accolades and credits to prove that. Beyond his original work, he’s also done varied work for companies such as HERE Arts Center, the American Symphony Orchestra, and even worked on an Amazon Prime Original Series (Lore). “There’s both pros and cons to doing original work and working for a company, and all artists need that balance. It’s uniquely satisfying to be on the purely generative end instead of the interpretive end, but also pleasurable to just focus on doing work like acting and puppet direction and design and co-creation.”

“Beyond what I’ve done so far, I do hope to one day explore more of what I can do, like directing an opera, site-specific puppetry, or even durational art with puppets, very Marina Abramović-like and tending more towards performance and conceptual art, where I might be keeping a puppet alive for a long period of time.” 

With all his years of experience and performance, Nick hasn’t settled on any specific artistic manifesto, but continues to hold a love and fascination with puppets. “What I want to achieve with my art is to widen the circle of empathy and encourage audience members to imagine what it is like to embody someone else,” he concludes. “After all, to follow along a puppet’s journey is an empathetic move, and even the existence of a puppet evokes powerful imagination. We often dismiss things we take for granted, the fact that we are conscious beings and have memories, and puppetry almost enchants that and brings back the mystery of life, to raise those existential and relational questions, and help you see the world anew.”

Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Chimpanzee plays from 26th to 28th May 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets and more information available here More information about Nick Lehane available on his website

Flipside 2023 runs from 26th May to 4th June 2023 at the Esplanade. Full programme and tickets available here

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